I was invited to try the float tank by Lexi Matthews at FM Integrative Health in Fargo, home to the first float tank in North Dakota — only open to the public since early April. Sensory deprivation tanks have been around since the ’50s but have seen a resurgence in popularity over the past year or so. Proponents say spending up to an hour floating in an enclosed chamber of salt water devoid of light and sound helps relieve anxiety, stress, insomnia and chronic pain.
“It just gives you a chance to calm down and relax, which is not something we take time for anymore,” says Matthews. “By just stopping, it forces the body to shift from being super energetic to rest and digest which is the other side of your nervous system.”
We walked from the lobby into the small room holding the float tank and I was immediately surprised by how big the tank was; it was more like the size of a small car than the coffin-like tank I saw in my only other point of reference on float tanks — an episode of “The Simpsons.” (Important online research.) In the episode, Lisa tried a float tank and got into a meditative state that caused her to hallucinate that she turned into her cat, a tree and Cokie Roberts.
Matthews didn’t say anything about Cokie Roberts, but told me, “It’s a totally new experience unless you’ve floated in the Dead Sea.” (I have not done that as it would require me to be seen in my bathing suit.)
Matthews said before getting in the tank — which is filled with 10 inches of water and 800 pounds of Epsom salt — I first had to get clean: remove my makeup and take a shower. This step ensures the tank stays as free from oils as possible. There is also a filter which runs for a half-hour in between clients.
As I stepped in the water, it felt lukewarm — close to my own body temperature. I shut the door and laid back in the darkened tank. I was struck by how easily I floated. The high salt content of the water created extra buoyancy. (I guess I would have known that if I had taken that vacation to float in the Dead Sea.) The tank was not completely dark as a small blue light shown from the bottom.
Unlike some tanks, FM Integrative Health pipes relaxing music into the chamber so as I floated I listened to the music and drifted away, or rather tried to drift away.
My thoughts: “Oh, that’s lovely violin music…so peaceful. Shoot, Laura (my daughter) needs a new viola. I meant to call the violin store today. I wonder if they’re open until 6 p.m. when I get off work. If I’m late getting home, what will I make for dinner? What’s in the freezer?”
Time to float.
I closed my eyes and concentrated on not concentrating. It helped that I didn’t feel claustrophobic like I thought I would. The top of the tank was a couple of feet above my head and I noticed as little sparkles of light peeked through it looked like a constellation of stars. (Maybe this new age woo woo stuff is how it started for Lisa Simpson).
I floated for a few minutes with the music and light, but I chose to turn both off to completely deprive the senses. After a couple of minutes, I felt myself drift further. I gently stretched my neck back and forth, but mostly I just laid there in the quiet darkness. I wouldn’t say it was the psychedelic experience some users report, but I found it incredibly relaxing and peaceful — and hard to get out of the tank when my session was over.
When it was over, I showered to get the salt off my body. I got a little salt in my ears and eyes, but that was a minor inconvenience compared to how soft my skin felt. Better yet, I still felt relaxed a couple of hours later — the kind of relaxed you feel stretched out on the deck on a warm summer day enjoying a cocktail. I didn’t turn into a cat, a tree or Cokie Roberts, but I’d consider it a win, and no one had to see me in my bathing suit.